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The brave new world of the PC

How publishers' abandonment and overpriced upgrades helped save PC gaming

Picking up on one of the perhaps less headline-friendly observations made to GamesIndustry.biz by Minecraft creator Markus Persson, he offered the suggestion that big publishers' general abandonment of the PC - at least in terms of creating games specifically for it - was actually to its benefit.

It's a fascinating and heartening argument. The mindlessly hollow argument that the PC is dead or dying as a game platform isn't going anywhere any time soon, largely due to the meagre retail space it's given. But as the consoles entrench into big brand-reliance and costly failures, the PC has been blossoming into new - and profitable - directions.

No-one knows - or will ever know, most likely - just how many copies most games sell on Steam (or indeed its many rivals, which old world firms such as Gamestop now seek to number among), but that it's been enough for the NPD to have a little panic and declare that their traditional sales-tracking methodology is no longer relevant. Of course, there's Facebook too, and more pointedly a legion of microtransaction-fuelled browser games and MMOs that no-one appears to be exhaustively monitoring.

The excitement, though, is the explosion in indie games. Not purely from a gamer's perspective, but even for the console-makers. The likes of the Super Meat Boy guys cut their teeth on the PC, learning skills and earning awareness that helped propel their platformer into the zeitgeist. That's far from a lone tale. Meanwhile, the esoteric likes of Recettear, a translated Japanese title about playing the shopkeeper of an archetypal RPG store, can sell tens of thousands of copies via digital distribution - with essentially no distribution or marketing costs.

Then, of course, there's Minecraft itself - making its creator a millionaire within months, without running so much a single advert, and without taking a penny of funding. Luck (and press attention) certainly plays its part, but the old ways simply aren't necessary. With so many of the traditional publishers all but absent, the room is quiet enough for smaller, braver titles to be heard.

It's not just the publishers' abandonment that's created this new frontier, either. The same factor that drove so many from the PC to the consoles is precisely what transformed it into the opportunity-rich platform it is today. The graphics card companies' one-time dominance of the PC as a gaming device led to consumer bewilderment and exhaustion at the insane range of ever-updated, expensive 3D cards. No-one can be blamed for feeling that having to spend the equivalent sum to a new console on a new card every 18 or 12 months was Sisyphean cycle they had to escape.

That age is over, though it seems at a terrible cost to NVIDIA and AMD-ATI. There won't be another Crysis, another flashpoint game that seems to demand a system upgrade. While the popular misconception that a gaming PC costs £1000+ remains, the truth is that a £250 machine is a gateway to untold thousands of new games, and a £400 can run essentially anything.

Those big, scary £250+ 3D cards aren't necessary any more, and as integrated graphics come on ever-further they'll only suffer more. Indie and free to play have taken full and timely advantage of a new age where PC owners don't upgrade. They can succeed because anyone can play them, and without having to make the conscious statement of being a gamer that a console purchase requires.

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer

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A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.

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